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Homelessness in the digital age

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Driving down Wisconsin Avenue, one of the main arteries in Washington, D.C., I took note of a homeless man on the median strip. His sign, asking for help, in block letters, included a way to send him money via Venmo.

I confess I was taken aback—something about the introduction of the digital economy into homelessness made me uncomfortable. Then again, the entire subject is uncomfortable. But it needs urgent and continuous attention.

According to the federally mandated “Point in Time Count” report conducted every year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to count the nation’s homeless population, there were 582,462 people experiencing homelessness in America on a single night in January 2022. US Department of Housing and Urban Development

Think about the number. That is about 18 out of every 10,000 people and it includes the chronically homeless, veterans, people with disabilities, children and families. Men are more likely to be homeless (68 percent) than women, and most groups of color have higher homelessness than their white counterparts by a large margin. The situation varies by state in America, with California reporting the highest per capita situation of homelessness: 121 out of every 10,000 people.

The Biden administration is seeing the same data. Last week, the president announced a new program aimed at reducing homelessness by 25 percent by the year 2025, which is ambitious.

The initiative, called “ALL INside,” focuses on six key U.S. area: Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, the Phoenix, Ariz., metro area, Seattle, and the state of California. According to the Biden administration, funding for the program will build on the $2.5 billion in funding to prevent homelessness under the administration’s American Rescue Plan and $486 million in HUD funding earlier this year.

First, I am glad the U.S. government is taking a local approach. Dealing with homelessness can often feel like putting a fork in an iceberg. The problem is so huge that only very local, targeted programs have proven successful, especially those with low-income housing solutions.

Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, has had enormous success with its homeless population, moving 25,000 people from the streets into homes last year using a “housing first” practice where local agencies help people go directly from the streets to homes, rather than shelters.

Second, though America is not alone with its homelessness crisis, for a major superpower, our situation is outrageous and untenable — and getting worse. The volume of homeless in the United States has been rising for years, with more people living in makeshift tents, on the street, or in and out of shelters. We join a long list of countries where people live unsheltered lives from refugee status to extreme poverty.

The Middle East has a tragic level of homelessness, made worse in recent years by earthquakes in Turkey, conflict in Syria and the conflict between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. Airstrikes often force refugees out of their tents and onto the open roads — people becoming displaced twice.

Africa has been plagued by homelessness for decades. In Nairobi, Kenya, a city of 4 million, it is estimated that at least 250,000 people live without shelter, and a growing number of them are children fleeing conflict from neighboring countries.

In Hong Kong, believed by many to be a wealthy territory, the number of registered “street sleepers” has doubled over the past few years, thanks to the pandemic, which brought strict lockdowns, and little assistance for the unemployed.

European cities have also struggled. In London, a housing crisis exacerbated by surging property and rental prices along with inflation and a war in Ukraine have made it difficult for people to literally find a roof overhead.

The causes of homelessness are varied and variable.

Drug addiction, mental illness, abuse, poverty, racial disparity, conflict, housing deficits and pandemics are contributing factors to an ongoing challenge for every society. After COVID, government programs have been eliminated and evictions have grown in America.

Which brings me back to the homeless man with his Venmo account.

Digital technology can, actually, be helpful in tracking the numbers of homeless and finding solutions if we can widen access to the internet for those with no home.

Experiments with apps in Australia show that when given cell phones and computers, those without homes were able to access services and feel less isolated. In San Francisco, more shelters are installing Wi-Fi to help with transitional housing and services and a better sense of connectedness.

We take so many things for granted these days, including technology. But if we can harness the potential of social media and platforms to help those left literally out in the cold, we should try.

Tara Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice in Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Tags ALL INside American Rescue Plan Homelessness Housing and Urban Development Department

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